51st Cambridge Folk Festival


Saturday starts the same way as Friday, getting on the outside of a decent breakfast. Last night was a late one as I was launching the new Fatea Showcase Session, Undercurrent, from the B&B.

Fortunately all went well, schedules were hit and people stated downloading it straight away so it was with more than a little swagger in my step that I head over to the site for day three.

Rather than a conventional workshop there is, described in the program, an illustrated talk with Peggy Seeger, but illustrated with song rather than power point.

Peggy has had a fascinating connection almost since birth. Her mum helped the Lomax family catalogue American folk music for the Smithsonian and her family connections, both through birth and marriage exceptional. It could be said that through circumstance Peggy Seeger became the bridge that reunited the folk traditions of the UK and the US.

Once again Colin Irwin was the question master, but this was very much Peggy talking about hers and the music's rich history.

Next up is one of my perennial Festival highlights, The Brian McNeill Session, two and a half hours of constantly changing bliss.

The session always starts and ends with a massed Celtic thrash, which I feel links one year to the next perfectly. Featuring the massed ranks of performers playing the Session, everyone is truly a one off.

Mawkin are the first band up from a distinct combo point of view kicking in with an English folk rock drinking song, that seems perfect for a sunny Cambridge Saturday despite the focus of the song being very much about skulking off work on a Monday. This is followed by a set of tunes that just drives the tempo and atmosphere forward.

Following them on stage are a group of musicians from Feis Rois, a project dedicated to the living tradition of Scottish music.

Every year a group of musicians are chosen to tour and promote their music during the Summer break, with many of the musicians going on to form bands and their own, so ensuring a vibrant scene. The set includes not only instrumentals, but also draws on the mouth music tradition. I'm constantly impressed by the standard of the offering from Feis Rois, who knows we could be listening to the next Mischa MacPherson.

Ange Hardy comes on to perform Sailors Farewell, but with just her guitar rather than with her looper. Taking the place of the looper are backing vocalists in the shape of Jade from the Willows and Hannah Sanders for a one off performance and one of the reasons the Brian McNeil Session is so special. It gives the song a different dynamic, with the harmonics coming from different vocalists, "The Sailor's Farewell" sounds like you've never heard it before and are never going to hear it again.

It's time for one of the cultural switches that the Brian McNeill Session is famous for. From traditionally inspired English folk music we are going to the pizzica style of Southern Italy and the return to a Cambridge stage of Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino, though this time sans dancer. Apparently the band are celebrating their fortieth year as a unit, though there have been changes in personnel with the baton being passed down the line. That experience stands them in good stead for being only able to rely on a short set to deliver their magic, which they do, including a mass audience participation sing-a-long accompanied by a number of tambourines, great stuff

Following Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino are Fara, a five piece all female band from Orkney who include amongst their number Twelfth Day's Catriona Price, Jeana Leslie, Jennifer Austin, Louise Bichan and Kristan Harvey. I'd managed to miss them when they opened up Stage Two, so it was good to catch them, albeit in a very abridged form. Even better when their numbers were boosted by guests from Rura and Talisk to create yet another unique listening opportunity.

They played a tight set of tunes with a title based on a friends visit to Amsterdam and somewhat surreally called Billy's Short Leg. There are some times where you feel an instrumental should have a narrative, rather than an explanation.

Elliott Morris made an appearance in the Brian McNeill Session last year and is making a welcome return. With a sense of stage craft that belies his youth, he mentions that his song has got a sing-a-long chorus, I'm expecting the usual request and a short learning opportunity, as are the crowd, before he requests them not to, as the final one changes. Even with a prep around the verses, it comes as a bit of a surprise when Elliott finishes with a comic, lost chord ending. Really nice to see an up and coming take a risk with a big crowd, albeit one with a reputation of rewarding the performers.

Next up Willows who are starting with a dark love song and let's be honest, folk really does do melancholy very very well. It's almost like a return to the older days of the session, with bands and acts mixing and matching as soon they are joined by guests Hannah, Sanders, Ange Hardy and the Sam Kelly Trio. I was fortunate enough to see the very impromptu rehearsals outside so it's no surprise to see most of the singers carrying the song lyrics with them, it really is one of those special moments.

The numbers thin down to Hannah Sanders with Ben Savage and Jade for a rendition of Nanci Griffith's Hard Times Come Again No More. Jade looks like she's trying to make the most of being near a stage before the Willows enter a maternity break. She has already tempted fate for tomorrow by making a joke about her water's breaking. I'm not sure if that would tempt people to a set or put them off, straw poll opportunity.